Don't Eat Fried Chicken

Jared Diamond's New Book Is No Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Before I begin this unfavorable review of Jared Diamond's so, so long new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, I want the reader to know exactly how I will use the troublesome word "theory." Now, in science, a theory is a hypothesis that has been supported by a lot of experimental evidence, and a hypothesis is basically a good guess that needs to be tested. In philosophy, a theory is more like a hypothesis than a scientific theory; it's a guess or concept that directs a course of thinking and, when brilliant, has great explanatory powers. Karl Marx's Das Kapital, for example, has a theory that explains how capitalism works: It exploits a peculiar attribute of the commodity called labor—peculiar because it's the one commodity that can generate a surplus. (This theory proved to be brilliant because it explained and unified a large number of the seemingly disparate social, cultural, and economic phenomena in societies dominated by the logic of self-interested wealth accumulation.) In the present review, I will use this sense, the philosophical sense, of theory.

Jared Diamond is many things: a biologist, a physiologist, an evolutionary psychologist, a geographer, and an ornithologist who once worked with the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr and published academic papers about my favorite feathered creature, the bowerbird. Guns, Germs, and Steel is the book that made Diamond famous, but his best book is his first, The Third Chimpanzee, which is short and presents something of a map for this trilogy: Why Is Sex Fun? (his second book), Guns (third), and Collapse (fourth). Diamond's latest book, The World Until Yesterday, lacks what we find in the first four: a theory.

Guns, for example, opens with a New Guinean asking the author this memorable question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Meaning, why do Westerners have more inventions, tools, equipment, products, and devices than Melanesians. Both are the same animal—humans—and both have the same intellectual and linguistic capacities. And yet, one has much more stuff—cargo—than the other. Diamond answered this difficult question with a bold theory: It has to do with the shape or orientation of the continents. Europe and Asia have a horizontal orientation of axes, whereas South America and Africa are vertical. The consequence of a horizontal axis is a more or less uniform climate, and this made East/West exchanges of ideas, innovations, inventions, animals, and crops relatively easy. North/South exchanges, on the other hand, were slowed or entirely blocked by the variety of climates (desert, rainforest, savanna) that characterize a vertical continent. This theory rewarded the reader with lots of interesting and even surprising explanations.

The World Until Yesterday opens with a scene at an airport—there are screeners for x-raying luggage, conveyor belts, check-in counters, computers, ATMs, people talking on cellphones, pilots walking with flight attendants, police officers, and so on. This could be any airport in Europe or the United States, but it's in Papua New Guinea, and the pilots, flight attendants, law officers, and counter clerks are the grandchildren or even children of people whose leading technologies had not advanced beyond stones, bows, and arrows. Diamond then compares the scene at the modern airport with the photographs taken of New Guinea's Highlanders in 1931: "In those photographs, the Highlanders who had been living for millennia in relative isolation with limited knowledge of an outside world, stare in horror at their first sight of the Europeans."

The question Diamond seems to be on the verge of asking sounds similar to the one at the opening of Guns: How is it possible that, within a generation or two, a society can go from grass skirts to mastering information technologies and air transportation? But Diamond doesn't ask this question, which, in any case, doesn't require a grand theory to answer: New Guineans are humans, and the Western technologies to which they have quickly adopted were designed by and for humans. Diamond asks instead: Are there things that we hypercivilized humans can learn from our vanishing primitive past? If so, what are they? His book then goes on and on about the good and bad things, pluses and minuses of this and that traditional way of life. None of the information is new, and much of it is pushed by every evolutionary psychologist you've ever heard of. Diamond even spends a lot of energy explaining a fact that evolutionary psychology loves to no end: Statistically speaking, primitive people are more violent than civilized people.

Because the book has no theory, it has no real direction or momentum or new insights. Seriously, Diamond wrote almost 500 pages to tell us Westerners to stop eating fried chicken! recommended


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Your review sounds superficially brilliant, but is deeply flawed. Diamond's Pulitzer book, and major thesis, are simply apologies for the rapacious crimes and nature of various empires: the Roman, British and American, etc.

Colonialism throughout Africa and parts of Asia?

Negative, people far more intelligent than I (Jane Jacobs and David Deutsch) have deftly destroyed Diamond's fundamental premise.

When, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, America was slaughtering Filipinos in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it had nothing to do with Geobiology, or Biogeography or whatever the eff Diamond claims, it was empire and land and resource theft, pure and simple.

Resource theft, and the killing which accompanies it, is a complete trademark of such events: the untold killing and slaughter during the 1950s in South America (during Eisenhower, which laid the further groundwork), and especially during Reagan's administration in the 1980s, with American Special Ops doing untold damage to those societies and cultures there, all in the name of American-based multinational resource theft!

Your review of his recent book is completely on target, of course.

Where Diamond excels is writing those introductions for his buddies' hedge fund books, similar Wall Street fans and apologists.
Posted by sgt_doom on January 31, 2013 at 10:40 AM · Report this
Sgt. Doom, apparently you didn't bother to read Guns, Germs, and Steel, but thanks for the ignorant commentary anyway, we needed a laugh on this page.

I agree with you Charles, there seems to be more belly button gazing in Yesterday than expected. I have appreciated it because it forces a contemplation of values that are taken for granted in the hypercivilized modern age. Not all of us readers of The Stranger are bohemian hippies - or completely unengaged ragesters like Sgt. Doom - and a little splash of bracing scientific rationale to urge introspection of our values is welcome. But Yesterday is really just a half step up from being a really good self-help book, not the sweeping perspective on the world and how it came to be or what millions of years of evolutionary biology drives in us as individuals, a species, or a culture.
Posted by sniff on February 5, 2013 at 4:30 PM · Report this
Claypatch 3
@sgt doom: You are about half right. Yes, the reasons the Filipinos were slaughtered in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War have all to do with Empire. In that you are absolutely correct. However the question that Diamond asks and then answers in "Guns, Germs and Steel" is how is it that Europeans were able to come up with the technologies that enabled them to build up and expand their Empires, that allowed colonization to happen. That's the part you are missing. You should read the book.
Posted by Claypatch on February 5, 2013 at 11:43 PM · Report this
A nice review, Charles...nice. Why is everyone so damn nice to Jared Diamond!? I understand this wasn't a favorable review, but I still think you were too gentle, Mr. Mudede.

I'm in accordance with sgt_doom, in some strange way, and I believe that with Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond has been the captain of an 'intellectualist' pop-culture voyage to conveniently forget about the past and present violence of colonialism once and for all.

I haven't read the new book, nor will I (understanding all the while that this doesn't make me the most credible critic), but "What can we learn from traditional societies?" sounds a bit like "the conquistadores slaid them, the Dutch and English shackled and sold them, our large corporations have murdered and displaced them, and we the upper-middle class of Western society still have the nerve to romanticize their cute little primitive tricks."

Fuck you Jared Diamond, fuck you.
Posted by d.colonel.eyes on February 6, 2013 at 11:04 AM · Report this
Ugh...Guns, Germs, and Steel was not an apology for colonialism. Every continent has had empires. In the Americas they were fairly small, but that was because they couldn't travel long distances quickly due to their lack of horses and not because the Aztecs didn't want to subjugate as many people as they could. And so if you want to explain why the Spanish conquered the Aztecs instead of the Aztecs conquering the Spanish, there are three explanations:

1) Europeans are naturally superior (racist)
2) Europeans during the colonial era were morally worse than the people they conquered (maybe true in some cases, but there's plenty of non-Western empires that probably would've jumped at the chance to found overseas colonies if they had the technology to pull it off, so it's a fairly dubious, borderline-racist claim at the end of the day)
3) Europe and Asia were able to develop technologically due to the geography of those continents and the plants and animals they were able to domesticate that Africa and the Americas lacked, and so Europeans subjugated everyone else because they could (not racist, since it depends on the luck of having easy-to-domesticate horses instead of impossible-to-domesticate zebras). If you believe Jared Diamond says that might makes right, that's a very problematic argument that totally excuses colonialism, but he never says that. Other people just read it into the book.
Posted by redemma on February 7, 2013 at 10:12 AM · Report this

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